Pelosi’s problem isn’t age, gender; it’s partisanship

There are five 2014 House races still to be decided before we can answer a question of historical interest:

Was this the worst election for House Democrats since 1928? Or merely their worst since 1946?

Either way, the results do not reflect well on the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi — a conclusion that seems to have escaped Nancy Pelosi.

“I do not believe what happened the other night is a wave,” the former speaker informed Politico’s Lauren French and John Bresnahan last week. She preferred to describe the election as “an ebb tide.”

If Democrats lose three of the five undecided races, they will have ebbed all the way back to the day Herbert Hoover won the presidency. To fail to see that as a wave, Pelosi must be far out at sea.

The drubbing and the denial have naturally raised doubts about whether Pelosi should remain on the job. But her interpretation was the opposite. “Quite frankly, if we would have won, I would have thought about leaving,” Pelosi told Politico. But because of the, er, ebb, she needs to stay — a classic argument for rewarding failure.

Pelosi is popular in her caucus, and there’s no indication she’ll be deposed in leadership elections next week. But it was certainly fair when Nancy Cordes of CBS News asked Pelosi at a news conference Thursday if she “gave any thought to stepping down as the leader.”

Pelosi’s jaw-dropping response: that Cordes was being sexist — and discriminating against Pelosi because of her age. “What was the day,” she replied to Cordes, “that any of you said to Mitch McConnell when they lost the Senate three times in a row … ‘Aren’t you getting a little old, Mitch? Shouldn’t you step aside?’”

It’s “interesting as a woman to see how many times that question is asked of a woman and how many times that question is never asked of Mitch McConnell,” Pelosi added. She was just warming up. “I was never on the front of Time magazine even though I was the first woman — wasn’t that a curiosity? That the Republicans win and (Speaker John) Boehner’s on the front of Time magazine. Mitch McConnell wins, he’s on the front of Time magazine. … As a woman, it’s like, is there a message here?”

Pelosi’s 8-year-old grievance with the newsmagazine is reasonable, if a bit small coming from somebody who has earned her place in history as the first female speaker of the House. As for McConnell’s treatment, here’s his home-state Louisville Courier-Journal in 2012: “He has failed utterly, a stunning failure driven home by Mr. Obama’s decisive win Tuesday. … Mr. McConnell should resign as Senate minority leader. If he refuses, his members should oust him.” There were similar questions about whether McConnell would keep his job in 2010 and before this year’s results.

Love Pelosi or hate her, she is a savvy legislator, and it’s not her fault that Democrats lost again. Gerrymandering and other factors will probably keep the House Republican into the next decade. (More Democratic candidates were defeated overall in 2014 than in the 2010 landslide, though fewer seats flipped because Republicans already control the most competitive ones.)

But there’s something to be said for fresh faces. Harry Reid, who just lost his perch as Senate majority leader, shrewdly persuaded the populist Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to join his leadership team. Yet there is no sign of movement among Democratic leaders in the House, where Pelosi, Whip Steny Hoyer and No. 3 Jim Clyburn are all in their mid-70s.

If Pelosi has a problem, it’s not her gender or her age but her image as a partisan warrior that Republicans have demonized as Democrats demonized Newt Gingrich. Long after she unwisely said of the Affordable Care Act that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it,” she still defended the remark.

At Thursday’s news conference, Chad Pergram of Fox News asked about recently discovered remarks by Jonathan Gruber, a consultant to the administration on Obamacare, who said the law exploited “the stupidity of the American voter.”

Pelosi replied, correctly, that Gruber’s “comments were a year old, and he has backtracked.” But then she went too far. “I don’t know who he is,” she said.

In fact, Pelosi’s office cited Gruber in a 2009 press release, and Pelosi herself, during a 2009 news conference, referred to Gruber and an analysis he had done.

Sometimes, the mark of a strong leader is knowing when to stop.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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